Being the defending Division I state champion in the long jump, Olivia Small of the Big Walnut High School girls track and field team had high expectations for her senior season this spring, as did coach Joe Evener.
Initially, Small was expected to miss the first half of the season while she recovered from an illness that proved difficult to diagnose. However, because she has missed the Golden Eagles' first 10 meets and has not made substantial progress in her recovery, Evener has ruled her out for the season.
"When you lose somebody as big as Olivia Small and the caliber of athlete she is, the type of leader she is, it's a big blow for the team," Evener said. "The circumstances were very unfortunate -- (an) illness that took forever to be diagnosed."
According to Evener, Small, an Ohio State recruit who set a personal and program record in winning the state title in the long jump last year in 19 feet, 8 3/4 inches, had a rare but serious reaction to strep throat.
"She's such a great person, aside from being a great athlete," Evener said. "You hate to see somebody miss their senior year, and not just in track. This time of year is important for seniors, especially senior girls with prom and everything else."
Evener said Small's loss has had an impact on the program.
"From the track side of it, to recover from a loss like that has been difficult, and it's a slow process," he said. "But the girls work hard, they're still very competitive and the performances are coming. Every week we're getting better, and that's all I can ask from them."
Evener said he has a "great senior class," with lots of leadership. Among those trying to fill Small's shoes in a leadership role are seniors Kristen Carty and Avery Kerns.
Carty is a key member of the 400- and 800-meter relays and Kerns has been competing in multiple events, going "pretty much wherever I need her to go," Evener said. The Golden Eagles' top athletes in the high jump, Kerns has started competing in the long jump and is a member of the 800 and 1,600 relays. She also has been competing in the hurdles.
Despite not having Small, Evener hasn't changed his expectations for the team this season.
"I can't do that," he said. "I think that for me, and for the girls, if I did that, I'd be selling them short."
Big Walnut made a strong showing in the Gahanna Relays on April 23, scoring 46 points to place fifth behind Gahanna (110), New Albany (86), Pickerington North (82) and Pickerington Central (73) as 13 teams scored. The Golden Eagles did not win any events.
"Our goals of competing for (the) OCC(-Capital Division) title, our goals of doing well at districts, our goals of getting people to the regional and state level, I haven't stopped with that," Evener said. "We just know it's going to take us a little bit of time to put all the pieces together now. ... It's not something where you snap your fingers and it happens automatically."
The boys team finished third (76) in the Gahanna Relays behind Pickerington Central (93) and Eastmoor Academy (77) as 12 teams scored. Finishing first for the Golden Eagles were Isaac Lucas (20-10 3/4) and Cole Stark (20-4 1/4) in the long jump relay (41-3).
Girls lacrosse team continues to grow
The girls lacrosse team was 0-7 overall and 0-3 in the OCC-Capital after losing to Olentangy Orange 16-3 on April 24.
Having a young and largely inexperienced roster, coach Steve Palmer expected this to be a learning season. With that in mind, he isn't letting the Golden Eagles' record stand in the way of their growth.
"Schools that are relatively new -- within 10 years or under -- we're competitive with," Palmer said.
However, the Golden Eagles have had trouble remaining competitive with teams that are established and have youth programs.
"We have some kids playing in their second or third year, and (the players for established programs are) starting in the third grade," Palmer said. "We don't have that yet."
Big Walnut struggled in two league games against established programs, losing 18-0 to Olentangy on April 10 and losing 18-1 to New Albany on April 17. But the Golden Eagles were competitive in a 13-9 loss to Gahanna on April 8, a 13-10 loss to Westerville North on April 19 and a 17-8 loss to Granville on April 22.
Attacker Janie Serna, the only senior on Big Walnut's 14-player roster, had five goals against North and junior midfielder Kelsie Bowling scored two. Junior midfielder Lexie Adams had five goals against Granville and all three against Orange.
Freshman goalkeeper Emily Hall, who Palmer said has been "baptized by fire" in her first season, has had several good performances behind an inexperienced defense. She had 14 saves against both North and Granville.
Despite the mounting losses, Palmer said the Golden Eagles remain positive.
"The girls have realistic expectations," he said. "They know we're not the caliber of team of some of the other OCC schools. ... Their expectations are right on. Let's keep improving, but let's keep trying to get a win."
Softball team bounces back from slow start
After splitting its first 10 games, the softball team got on a roll, riding a five-game winning streak into its OCC-Capital contest against Olentangy on April 25.
Big Walnut, which was 10-5 overall and 4-3 in the OCC-Capital before playing the Braves, swept a doubleheader with Cardington (7-0 and 17-9 on April 19), beat Olentangy Orange (5-2 on April 21) and Franklin Heights (9-0 on April 23) in league games and rallied to defeat Buckeye Valley (8-7 on April 22) in a five-day span.
The Golden Eagles, who trailed visiting Buckeye Valley 7-4 before scoring two runs in the fifth and two in the sixth, struggled to find offensive consistency early in the season, but they scored a total of 46 runs in their winning streak. Coach Jeff Hatfield said his team's increase in offensive production has been key to the turnaround.
"We're starting to get a little more consistency at the plate and in the field," Hatfield said. "A lot of it has been timely hitting. We've been hitting decently, but being able to string hits together and get runs across had been a little tough."
Leading the offensive charge against Cardington were seniors Hayley Apple and Brooke Hatfield, each of whom hit a grand slam in the doubleheader. Through 15 games, Apple and senior Shaye Kuhlman each had three home runs and Hatfield had two.
According to coach Hatfield, senior Shelbie Borchers has been the team's most consistent offensive player. Her batting average was hovering around .500 through 15 games and she has "critical" speed on the base paths.
"Some of the girls that we expected to are starting to swing big bats for us," coach Hatfield said.
Another consistent presence has been pitcher Kate Petty, who threw a no-hitter in a 1-0 win over New Albany in a league game April 16 and had two other shutouts through 15 games.
Despite his team's recent play, coach Hatfield knows it will be a difficult task to win the OCC-Capital after the slow start.
"It would be tough to win the division," he said. "But our division in the OCC, as far as I'm concerned, is as tough as any. ... The goal is to try to win out and see where the cards fall."